Israeli Icon Under FireDid the nation's most celebrated
archaeologist deliberately deceive the public about
On the last day
of October, a cavalcade of foreign dignitaries and Israeli
hundreds of ordinary citizens making their way to the top of a
plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. They gathered to proclaim this
secluded fortress, called Masada, one of the world's most important
historical sites -- a place worthy of global attention and
Colloquy Live: Read the transcript of a live,
online discussion with Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist
and dean of the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, about his new book, Sacrificing
Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada
The United Nations, which put the Israeli mesa on
the list of World Heritage Sites, chose the place in part to
commemorate the Jewish rebels who held the lofty stronghold, and
eventually perished there, in the waning days of a revolt against
the Roman Empire in AD 73. In its report on Masada, the U.N.
concludes that "the tragic events during the last days of the Jewish
refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a
symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of
the continuing human struggle between oppression and
One prominent Israeli scholar, though, stayed home.
He tossed aside his invitation and instead made scornful remarks to
the news media. For Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist who is dean of
the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
Masada stands as a symbol of national mythology and academic
deception -- a case study of how archaeologists can hijack the
scientific method for ideological purposes.
controversial new book, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the
Myth of Masada (Prometheus/Humanity Books), Mr. Ben-Yehuda
accuses Israel's most celebrated archaeologist, the late Yigael
Yadin, of professional misconduct in his excavations at the site
during the 1960s. After studying transcripts of conversations and
documents written during the work and years later, Mr. Ben-Yehuda
concludes that Yadin conducted "a scheme of distortion which was
aimed at providing Israelis with a spurious historical narrative of
Many archaeologists, however, reject Mr.
Ben-Yehuda's harsh assessment and even accuse him, in turn, of
manipulating facts to promote his own agenda. "He twists and
distorts things," says Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism at
the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who has excavated
at Masada in recent years. "It's very disturbing to me. I can only
imagine that Yadin must be rolling in his grave."
in the Desert
Seen from above, Masada is literally a
diamond in the desert -- a kite-shaped mesa 2,000 feet long and
1,000 feet wide, rising 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea. It sits at a
schism where two giant patches of the earth's crust have ripped
apart, exposing a gaping chasm so deep that it ranks as the lowest
spot on any continent.
The violent human history there
mirrors its geologic past. For millennia, warriors have retreated to
the flat top of the plateau to escape their enemies. Surrounded by
cliffs, Masada provides a superb natural refuge that one group after
another has exploited over the ages. Its Hebrew name (pronounced
"Me-tza-dah") means fortress.
The most extravagant resident
of Masada was Herod the Great, who was appointed client-king of the
Jewish nation by the Roman emperor in 40 BC. Around 31 BC, Herod
built a magnificent set of palaces and fortifications on the plateau
as a winter home that could also serve as a safe house in case his
restive subjects rejected his rule or Cleopatra tried to take his
Many of Herod's buildings still remain, but they
alone do not draw the crowds. It's the remarkable set of events
following Herod's death that make Masada the second-most-visited
spot in Israel. Before the violence of the past two years, hundreds
of thousands of foreign visitors each year ascended the plateau and
heard the tale of resistance and death that turned the isolated rock
into a memorial.
The standard story is attributed to Josephus
Flavius, a Roman historian who had been a Jewish priest and
commander. In The Jewish War, he tells how the "Great Revolt"
broke out in AD 66, when militant Jews rejected Roman rule and
kicked the foreign forces out of Jerusalem.
A group of
Jewish rebels, known to history as the Zealots, took over Masada
soon after the start of the revolt and occupied the site for seven
years. After the Roman army reconquered Jerusalem and the rest of
the country, Masada stood as the remaining pocket of Jewish
In AD 73, the Roman general Flavius Silva
marched thousands of troops to the base of the plateau and built a
siege wall around it, trapping the 967 Jewish men, women, and
children at the top. The Roman forces built a ramp along the western
edge of the plateau and hauled equipment to the top to batter down
the walls of the fortress. As the Romans were breaching the
defenses, the leader of the rebels, Elazer Ben Ya'ir, persuaded his
people to burn their belongings and to kill themselves rather than
let the women and children be taken as slaves.
Romans reached the top, Josephus says, they were "met with the
multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact,
though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than
wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable
contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when
they went through with such an action as that was." The only
survivors were two women and five children who had hidden themselves
and so lived to describe the rebels' last acts to the
From Army to Archaeology
later, another charismatic Jewish leader was rallying his troops at
the summit of Masada. In 1963, Yigael Yadin marshaled a force there
to carry out the most massive archaeological excavation ever
attempted in Israel. He had served as a military commander of Jewish
forces from the 1930s to the early '50s before going into
archaeology. He gained fame in that discipline by studying one of
the Dead Sea Scrolls that had been found in cliffs not far north of
Masada. Written by the Essenes, a messianic Jewish sect, the scrolls
provide a window into Jewish life around the time of
Yadin came to Masada hoping to find more scrolls and
motivated as well by Josephus's historical account, say his former
students. Between October 1963 and April 1965, he led an
archaeological team financed mainly by overseas backers and staffed
largely by international volunteers and members of the Israeli
Defense Forces. Igor Stravinsky gave thousands of dollars. Donations
also came from The Observer, a London newspaper, which ran
reports on the digging, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda.
attracted so much interest because Masada had by that time become a
symbol of Jewish strength in the face of great odds. The Israeli
army held regular ceremonies atop the hallowed site, inducting
soldiers into the elite armored unit with the oath, "Masada shall
not fall again!"
When Yadin's forces started excavating on
the plateau, they found unmistakable signs that the Jewish rebels
had occupied the fortress at precisely the time Josephus had said.
The diggers uncovered living quarters, written scrolls, Jewish coins
minted during the rebellion, pottery, weapons, and clothes. At the
base of the plateau, the remnants of the Roman walls and siege camps
were still clear, as was the earthen ramp constructed along the
western edge, on top of a natural embankment.
provided clues about the rebels' final moments. The archaeologists
found signs of a great fire that had consumed the defenders'
possessions. They also discovered many ostraca, or potsherds
with writing on them. A cluster of a dozen ostraca in
particular made a strong impression because 11 of them each bore a
Jewish name -- one of which was Ben Ya'ir, the name of the
In his 1966 book on the excavations, Yadin
called that cluster of ostraca the excavation's most
spectacular find, even if it did not hold the most archaeological
importance. "We were struck by the extraordinary thought: 'Could it
be that we had discovered evidence associated with the death of the
very last group of Masada's defenders?'" Josephus had described how
10 men were selected by lottery to kill the rest of the rebel
families and then drew lots to determine which one of the 10 would
slay the remaining fighters and finally himself. Yadin wondered
whether the ostraca were the lots cast by the last 10
defenders and their commander. "We'll never know for certain. But
the probability is strengthened by the fact that among these 11
inscribed pieces of pottery was one bearing the name 'Ben Ya'ir.'"
At that time and place, such a name could refer only to the
commander, said Yadin.
For the archaeological team and people
around the world, such finds and others buttressed the tale of
rebellion and suicide on that windswept mountaintop. "The
archaeological interpretation provided for this [ostraca]
discovery by the most authoritative contemporary voice -- that
of Yadin -- helped bring into being a construction which
appeared to give unequivocal support to Josephus's narrative,"
writes Mr. Ben-Yehuda.
Unfortunately, the construction rests on a
flimsy and even fraudulent foundation, he charges. It involved
"falsifying historical evidence and concealing facts, adapting
deceptive techniques and inventing historical realities," according
to Mr. Ben-Yehuda, who has long done research on scientists who
deviate from the mainstream, both those who commit fraud and those
who legitimately seek out new methods of exploration.
the past decade, Mr. Ben-Yehuda has dedicated a large portion of his
time to exposing what he sees as the Israeli self-delusion over
Masada. He is not the first to have questioned the facts surrounding
the rebellion that ended there, but he has provided one of the
loudest voices on the topic.
In The Masada Myth:
Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (University of
Wisconsin Press, 1995), Mr. Ben-Yehuda looks at the origins of what
he calls the myth: that Masada was a heroic tale, worthy of
celebration. He argues that the standard story's description of the
Jewish rebels as Zealots -- religious revolutionaries
-- is a distortion of Josephus's narrative by early Zionists.
Josephus actually said the rebels belonged to a group known as the
The distinction is crucial, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda,
because Josephus characterizes the Sicarii as political extremists,
distinct from the Zealots. The name Sicarii comes from sica,
the daggers that members of the group carried and used to
assassinate their opponents, whether Jewish or Roman. According to
Josephus, the Sicarii turned their weapons on the leaders of
moderate Jews who submitted to Roman rule.
The Sicarii left
Jerusalem early in the revolt, and they were the ones who took over
Masada. While there, they raided the nearby Jewish town of En Gedi,
killing some 700 people and stealing the town's food, says
Contrary to the popular tale of heroism at Masada,
Mr. Ben-Yehuda views the Sicarii as terrorists who killed innocent
people and committed suicide rather than fight to the death. "If you
read Josephus Flavius, there is no heroism" in the Masada story, the
professor says. But like other Israelis of his generation and
preceding ones, the 54-year-old scholar was weaned on the heroic
epic, which had been molded by the Zionists to forge a new Jewish
identity, he says. "They needed a new type of Jew, somebody who was
willing to fight and die for his own country."
finishing his first book, Mr. Ben-Yehuda wondered how a scientist as
celebrated as Yadin could have perpetuated the myth. That curiosity
turned into a research project when the sociologist learned that
Yadin had tape-recorded the nightly meetings of his team during the
Masada excavations. Examining transcripts of those discussions, Mr.
Ben-Yehuda compared them with what Yadin said later about the
excavations in his speeches, articles, and, most important, in his
1966 book, Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
What emerged from that
research disturbed Mr. Ben-Yehuda, who says Yadin consistently
distorted Josephus's words and the data that emerged from the digs.
"It's obvious why he does that, because he wants to make the people
who were on Masada appear in a more positive
By contrast, Mr.
Ben-Yehuda casts much of Yadin's work in a negative light. In
addition to faulting the archaeologist for calling the Masada rebels
Zealots and failing to mention the massacre at En Gedi, the new book
charges that he:
the latter case, Mr. Ben-Yehuda says, Yadin was originally cautious,
during the nightly meeting on November 6, 1963, in deciphering the
use of a particular building that was designed to hold many people.
Archaeologists at that session suggested that the building might be
a synagogue, but Yadin demanded more proof. That caution disappeared
a few days later, when he spoke to the news media, which reported
the find as possibly a synagogue -- a conclusion that was
unwarranted at the time, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda. Later, archaeologists
made other discoveries -- including texts from Deuteronomy
buried under the floor -- that solidified the interpretation of
the structure as a synagogue.
- Labeled the dozen ostraca as potential "lots," when
there were actually two more than Josephus described in his
- Implied that the mass suicide happened in a part of the lower
palace, which Mr. Ben-Yehuda says was too small to hold the 967
people on Masada at the time.
- Never published a full scholarly report on the excavations,
and prevented others from doing so until his death at the age of
67, in 1984.
- Interpreted one building as a ritual bath and another as a
synagogue, although the evidence was equivocal.
Mr. Ben-Yehuda finds another
major problem in the descriptions of the human skeletons found on
Masada. Although Josephus wrote that nearly a thousand people
committed suicide, the excavations uncovered the bones of only about
28 people, in two locations. For Mr. Ben-Yehuda, the story of those
bones provides proof of Yadin's penchant for twisting the data to
his own purposes.
Early in the excavation, the team found
the remains of a man, woman, and child in Herod's former palace on
the northern side of the plateau. In one of the Yadin team's nightly
discussions, an anthropologist estimated that the woman had been 17
or 18 years old, the man between 20 and 22, and the child 11 to 12.
In the same discussion, Yadin responded that the man and women could
be a couple, but that the woman could not be the child's mother
because of their ages. Yadin concluded that the man was a rebel
warrior because some armor was found at the same spot.
years later, in an interim report, Yadin wrote, "It cannot be stated
with certainty that these skeletons are those of the family of that
last warrior who ... took the lives of his family and set the palace
on fire ... but there seems to be no doubt that these skeletons are
those of the people of the Great Revolt."
Although Yadin took
care to qualify the uncertainty of his hypothesis at that point, his
hesitation vanished over time, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda. In 1971, the
archaeologist wrote that "the skeletons undoubtedly represent the
remains of an important commander of Masada and his family."
Then, in a speech atop Masada in 1973, he said, "I shall
mention the remains of the three fighters that we found in the
northern palace: a very important commander, his wife, and their
child, just like the description in Josephus Flavius."
Ben-Yehuda, the metamorphosis in those statements exposes Yadin. "It
was obviously a deliberate, falsified interpretation, one that had
nothing to do with the facts, and it was meant to make audiences
believe in a mythical narrative."
That statement angered
North Carolina's Ms. Magness, who took a course with Yadin during
her freshman year at Hebrew University. "That's not true," she says,
"and it's libelous."
In fact, she accuses Mr. Ben-Yehuda of
sloppy scholarship. "There are places where this guy not only
distorts things but puts in factual errors in order to make his
For example, the professor accuses Yadin of misleading
readers by wrongly implying "that the revolt against the Romans was
a popular one and encompassed all the Jewish population." But Yadin
was correct, Ms. Magness says. "During the course of the war,
everybody became involved, moderates as well as radicals. Yes, the
war was countrywide. It did involve massacres of Jews all over the
Similar reactions to Mr. Ben-Yehuda come from four
former students of Yadin's who took part in the excavations during
the 1960s and since have become some of Israel's top archaeologists.
Ehud Netzer, a professor in the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew
University, says he hasn't read the new book but has discussed its
contents with the author. "Nonsense, pure nonsense," is Mr. Netzer's
He and Gideon Foerster, a professor at the
institute, coordinated the publication of the final report on
Masada, which came out in six volumes during the 1990s. Mr. Foerster
says Yadin cannot be faulted for calling the rebels Zealots because
that was the conventional term used by scholars, and the Sicarii fit
its conventional use. In fact, in his 1966 book, Yadin referred to
the Sicarii as a subgroup of Zealots. He chose a term that people
would understand. "Nobody knows what Sicarii means, and everybody
knows what Zealots means," says Mr. Foerster.
was important to put Josephus's story in context, says Ze'ev Meshel,
a retired professor at the institute. The historian, who was
extremely critical of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, had his own
political reasons for coloring events, and Yadin's team tried to
take those issues into account, Mr. Meshel says.
archaeological discoveries matched the historical account, Yadin
found such parallels compelling, and he described them to the
public, says Mr. Foerster. "He was an excellent lecturer, and he
wrote in an interesting way, and people were very enthusiastic."
Yadin offered his own interpretations, but he did so responsibly,
Mr. Foerster adds. In the case of the skeletons, he says, Yadin may
have gone a little too far, "but it's a side point. It's not very
Yoram Tsafrir, another professor at the
institute, says Yadin could get carried away speaking to a crowd, as
do many scientists while talking to the news media or giving public
lectures. "But to accuse him of forging the conclusions? This is far
from doing justice to the man. He was a great scholar and a great
Mr. Ben-Yehuda responds that Yadin always had a
responsibility to be accurate and comprehensive, by including
evidence contradicting his interpretations as well as the data
supporting them. "I require from somebody who is a professor of
archaeology to be very careful about what he says."
sociologist's critical analysis does get some support from Philip L.
Kohl, a professor of anthropology and Slavic studies at Wellesley
College, who co-edited Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of
Archaeology (Cambridge, 1995). Mr. Ben-Yehuda's new book makes a
good case that Yadin ignored data that went against his ideas, says
Mr. Kohl. "I've got to believe that there was some sacrificing of
truth going on [with Yadin], and that it was not just a totally
But Neil A. Silberman, a biographer
of Yadin, argues that the archaeologist was a product of his time
and wasn't aware of his biases. "He was living in the period of
romantics. It's very difficult to confront an archaeologist of one
period with all the accumulated knowledge that came subsequently,"
says Mr. Silberman, a historian of archaeology at the Ename Center
for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation, in Flanders,
As the descriptions of the skeletons show, says Mr.
Silberman, Yadin's initial skepticism evaporated as time went on,
just as that of other archaeologists did. "They got more and more in
love with the story," he says. "As the years went by, their original
hesitations got forgotten."
Mr. Ben-Yehuda's anger at Yadin
makes sense because he feels deceived by earlier generations, much
as other Israelis do, says Mr. Silberman. "The intellectual outrage
at discovering the tales my father told me aren't true is still
really raw. It's still part of the process of Israel trying to find
some possible direction into the future. It is still in the realm of
contradicting, criticizing, deconstructing."
For his part,
Mr. Ben-Yehuda says he believes that Josephus's version of history
probably was correct: The Sicarii held out against a Roman siege and
committed suicide on top of Masada. But the scholar suggests that
some of the people on Masada died against their will, and that there
is no honor in the actions of the Sicarii. "I would not make it a
World Heritage Site. Why should we? What is the 'heritage' there?
Death? Futile and unwise revolt? Collective suicide by a group of
Still, he remains wistful for the days
when he saw Masada as a national shrine and an uncomplicated symbol,
rather than a morally ambiguous, commercialized tourist spot. "I
have some warm corners in my heart for the Masada I knew as a kid,"
he says. "There is a sense of disappointment going up there and
being so cynical about it."
Section: Research & Publishing
49, Issue 15, Page A16